The Contradictions at the Heart of Iraqi Society

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi delivers a speech during the vote on the new government at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad, May 7, 2020. (Iraqi Parliament Media Office/Handout via Reuters)
Why Iraqis sometimes say one thing but do another

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n 1951, a young Iraqi scholar named Ali al-Wardi published The Personality of the Iraqi Individual (shakhsiyat al-fard al-iraqi). This work of social psychology is still readily available at the bookshops of Iraq, and widely recommended by Iraqis when I have asked for book suggestions. When he wrote the book, al-Wardi had just completed his Ph.D. at the University of Texas in sociology, and was starting what would be a long career at the University of Baghdad. In the book, al-Wardi sought to analyze the cultural traits that make Iraqis distinct and to address some of the key defects he saw in Iraqi social life.

The key point al-Wardi tries to make in the book is that Iraqis live a sort of duality or dual personality (izdiwaaj, in Arabic) in both their public and private lives. At the most abstract level, al-Wardi identifies a grand historical (civilizational, as he calls it) narrative for this duality: For thousands of years, Iraq’s society has been shaped by two competing, often contradictory, systems of thought and values. Iraq — Mesopotamia — is the birthplace of civilization and settled urban life. At the same time, for its entire history, it has been surrounded by nomadic tribal culture, which has consistently conquered and imposed itself on the settled, civilized culture. As a result, al-Wardi says, these two systems create, deep in Iraqi society, a contradictory understanding of social norms and values. The Iraqi is both the oppressor — the Bedouin warrior ravaging the settlements of Mesopotamia — and the oppressed victim of that oppression. The Iraqi is a masochist when confronted with someone stronger, he suggests, and a sadist when confronted with someone weaker — quick to cry oppression, and quick to oppress.

On a social level, al-Wardi criticizes the strict gender segregation of Iraqi social life. Men interact with other men in the café, while women entertain other women in the home. Children are left to their own devices and play unsupervised in the street. They quickly learn the laws of the jungle: The strong eat the weak. They also learn that, in front of their parents, they are expected to behave as though they are the ideal child. And so a contradiction grows between words and action. They are the politest children around their parents’ friends, while beating up on the neighborhood kids, unsupervised by any adults, five minutes later down the street. They’ve learned to repeat an unattainable ideal, while acting in the opposite manner, knowing they will not be held to account for the contradiction. The Iraqi child also develops a strong sense of tribalism in this environment, always favoring the children of his neighborhood against those of another neighborhood. As children grow into adults, this expands to tribalism, regionalism, and sectarianism. Genders remain segregated, so young men learn to suppress their natural desire to interact with women, which would be socially inappropriate; as a result, they develop a resentment toward women. Even after marriage, a man is looked down on for spending too much time at home with his wife.

Living the duality between word and action, Iraqis criticize one another strongly for things they also do themselves. A mid-level bureaucrat complains about the corruption of the senior official while accepting bribes himself. The gravest sin one can commit is not to do the wrong thing, but rather to say the wrong thing. As to whether this contradiction exists in other societies, he writes:

I don’t deny that this duality is a general phenomenon present in a diluted form in every [place] where humans are found, but I affirm to you that this duality in us [Iraqis] is concentrated and embedded in the depths of our souls. The Iraqi, God forgive him, is — more than others — enamored with the high ideal, and with advocating for that high ideal, in rhetoric and writing. At the same time, the Iraqi is among the most to deviate from this high ideal in the reality of his life.

Al-Wardi even shows this contradiction in the very language Iraqis speak. Classical Arabic of the purest quality is the expected form of official communication, where minor grammatical and stylistic errors are caught and corrected. The content, however, is of secondary importance; this form of rhetoric is entirely removed from the Iraqi dialect of Arabic spoken by people in their daily lives.

Al-Wardi acknowledged that his book is not the last word on the topic, and he was hoping that other Iraqi scholars would pick up where he left off. He did identify three steps — not comprehensive — that could address some of the negative consequences of this duality. First, he advocated an expanded role for women in life outside the home. Iraqis should be more comfortable in settings where men and women mix. Second, Iraqis should be encouraged to write in a style that more accurately reflects how they actually speak — in other words, to bridge the gap between written Arabic and spoken Arabic. Last, al-Wardi thought that organized sports for children would provide the discipline and order that they have lacked.

Seventy years later, one wonders what al-Wardi would think of Iraq’s current state of affairs. Was his original thesis right, and does it still hold today? As Iraq debates the presence of U.S. troops in the country, it will be interesting to watch events unfold with these questions in mind. The parliament voted in January to remove U.S. troops from the country, but the decision has not yet been implemented. The caretaker prime minister at the time, Adel Abdel Mahdi, said he would leave that responsibility to the next government.

Since February, Iraq has gone through three prime ministers designate. The second prime-minister designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, announced that U.S. troops would be departing Iraq soon. “I talked to the U.S. ambassador and coalition officials in Iraq about a schedule for coalition-troop withdrawal from Iraq,” he said in a TV interview. “Half of the U.S.-led coalition troops will withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2020, while the other half will leave Iraq after we agree on a schedule by the beginning of next year. Iraq does not need foreign troops on its soil.” Al-Zurfi ended up withdrawing from his nomination to lead a government, and since then the U.S. has turned over some military facilities to the Iraqi government but appears set to maintain several facilities in the country. Will the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops continue to be pushed down the road? Will rhetoric match reality?

Haidar al-Abadi, the prime minister in 2014 when U.S. forces returned to assist with anti-ISIS counterterrorism operations — having withdrawn in 2011 — released a statement in February saying that the decision to allow the U.S. back in was taken by Nouri al-Maliki when he was still prime minister. No one wants to take responsibility for the decision publicly, but there was no chance that Iraq could have defeated ISIS without additional U.S. support. We’ll see if any prime minister is willing to either force U.S. troops out, or expressly announce that they are staying. It may be, following al-Wardi’s thesis, that prime ministers continue to say that U.S. troops will depart, while not taking any concrete action to achieve that goal. Iraq’s government has a habit of announcing decisions that are never implemented: Alcohol was banned in 2016, and the video game PUBG was banned in 2019. Neither ban is widely enforced. It is almost as if, à la al-Wardi, no one can be caught on record opposing, say, the continued illicit status of alcohol, but no one is willing to actually enforce a law banning it. Even in the law, rhetoric and action need not align.

A clearer example that perfectly demonstrates al-Wardi’s thesis is in neighboring Syria. Indeed, al-Wardi said in the book that his analysis applied to other Arab countries as well, though his focus was on Iraq. Just a few years before al-Wardi published his book, on December 1, 1947, the Syrian parliament met to discuss the developing situation in Palestine. Two days before, the U.N. had recognized the partition plan, dividing up the territory that had formed the British Mandate in Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. Thirty members of parliament presented a letter to the speaker of Syria’s parliament declaring that they would volunteer with the Ministry of Defense to fight against the partition plan alongside the Arab Palestinians. According to Abdul Salam al-Ojeili, then a member of Parliament representing Raqqa whose name was on the letter, he hadn’t even been asked to sign the letter himself, but colleagues signed in his behalf because they assumed he would support it. In the end, however, only three of the 30 members of the parliament went to Palestine to fight: Abdul Salam al-Ojeili, Akram Hourani from Hama, and Ghalib Ayashi from Idlib. From what I can tell, the other 27 faced no backlash over signing the letter but not going to fight. This follows al-Wardi’s logic perfectly: The gravest sin one can commit is to say the wrong thing (in this case tacitly supporting the partition by not signing the protest letter) rather than to do the wrong thing (in this case not going to fight despite having promised to do so). Many of al-Ojeili’s colleagues encouraged him to stay in Damascus rather than fight, according to his memoirs.

Al-Wardi’s book helped me clarify a certain phenomenon I’ve experienced again and again while living in Iraq. Anyone who has taken a taxi in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, will know that a surprising number of Kurds say that life was better when Saddam Hussein ruled the country. This does not compute with what outsiders assume are the fault lines within Iraqi politics. The first time I heard it was just after George H. W. Bush passed away, shortly after moving to the country. I thought about writing an article on reactions to his death in Iraqi Kurdistan. Agence France-Presse and other outlets had published some man-on-the-street interviews in Baghdad, where Bush 41’s role in the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s made him a very unpopular figure. I thought it would be interesting to add a Kurdish perspective to this. But I interviewed three separate people, all Kurdish, who told me that life was better under Saddam, and therefore they didn’t particularly love George Bush anymore (nor did they hate him; they were simply ambivalent). I realized that the story was not as straightforward as I had understood it before. To be clear, most Kurds I speak to are happy to be rid of Saddam, and they thank me, as an American, for saving the Kurds from Saddam Hussein in 1991 (as if I had much to do with it while sitting in kindergarten class learning the alphabet). But the dissenting opinion is alive and well also, expressed in a nostalgia for Saddam Hussein.

On another recent occasion, I was visiting a Syriac Orthodox monastery in northern Iraq, accompanied by a Syriac Catholic driver. I commented that the monastery was beautiful, and he scowled, saying that their Syriac Catholic monasteries were much nicer, and it would have been better if ISIS had killed all the Syriac Orthodox and destroyed the monastery. I didn’t even know how to respond. Again, the words he was saying almost didn’t compute. You can’t actually mean that, I thought. I assumed I had misunderstood his Arabic. But no; on repeating, he said the same thing, this time with a gentle smirk.

Reading Ali al-Wardi, I can perhaps start to piece together an explanation for this, one that at least assures me that my Syriac Catholic driver didn’t actually want all Syriac Orthodox dead, or that, if given the choice, a significant percentage of Iraqi Kurdistan’s population would prefer Saddam Hussein over the current situation. I may just be trying to rationalize something that doesn’t fit a narrative I want to believe. Nonetheless, al-Wardi’s analysis of his own society rests on the contradiction in Iraqi life between what is said and what is done. I now think this is at least in part a rhetorical tool used to make a strong point. The young Syriac Catholic driver doesn’t actually want the Syriac Orthodox all dead. But how can he show how much he dislikes them? By using the worst experience all Iraqi Christians recently suffered, that of ISIS, and wishing it upon them. Likewise, how can Kurds demonstrate just how unhappy they are with their current system? By saying that even Saddam Hussein, who tried to kill them, would be a better alternative. Because in the end, it’s not about the action — the Syriac Catholic guy is not going to communicate with ISIS sleeper cells and coordinate attacks on the Orthodox, and Kurds who want a change in the system aren’t going to cooperate with a new Arab strongman in Baghdad and try to get him to impose dictatorial rule again throughout the country. It’s merely a rhetorical device to show how disgusted they are with the way things are.

From the outside, it would be easy to draw a sweeping and simple conclusion based on al-Wardi’s book: All Iraqis are liars. Many Iraqis say exactly that about their fellow countrymen. But the question isn’t one of dishonesty. It’s about what language communicates. Iraqis know that U.S. troops are not going to leave Iraq in the near future, regardless of what the prime minister says. But the prime minister probably can’t say that he supports a continued U.S. presence, which many Iraqis see as an occupation. That would be a worse sin than to actually allow that occupation to continue. A citizen’s understanding of the situation depends on knowing that the prime minister is not being forthright, though we have yet to see how the new prime minister will navigate this in both rhetoric and policy.

This is not to say that the dichotomy between language and action is without consequence. Al-Wardi himself saw this as a fundamental factor in many of Iraq’s social problems. A great nostalgia exists throughout the Middle East for supposedly happier times. In Iraq, this is for the era before either Saddam Hussein or the U.S. invasion. In Lebanon, it’s before the civil war that ended in 1990. In Syria, it’s either before 2011 or before the Baath Party took over the country in 1963. But al-Wardi is a good reminder that at least one Arab thinker had long ago identified fundamental cultural problems that Arabs felt were holding back the progress of their people, and he foreshadowed the social breakdown the region is now experiencing.

This is now a frequent topic of debate within Arab intellectual life. But in al-Wardi’s day and before, the focus was more on the external enemy (the Ottoman Empire, then European colonialism, then Israel, etc.) than on the internal foes. Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh contends that one of the most serious defects in Arab intellectual life is a lack of effort put toward understanding the current reality as it is, not as we want it to be. Al-Wardi is a clear exception. He was looking very closely at the reality of Iraqi society. He was ahead of his time in anticipating the problems, and particularly the internal divisions, that plague the region today.

Hearing about Ali al-Wardi, many Americans here might say: Well, our politicians all lie, too. True. But, unlike in Iraq — generally speaking — there is at least an expectation that when politicians say one thing and do another, they will be held accountable or at least exposed as hypocrites.

I often talk with Iraqis about the intentions of the United States in 2003, when we invaded their country and removed Saddam Hussein. They simply do not believe me when I tell them that the Bush administration believed its own rhetoric. The administration truly believed — as did many others in the U.S. and abroad — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. It would seem, looking back, that the administration was terribly blinded by ideology and saw what it wanted to see in the evidence, based on a certain assumption of Saddam’s intentions. It was wrong, but that is different from deliberately lying. Likewise, I think the Bush administration sincerely believed that Iraqis would flourish under a democratic, post-Saddam order. That was obviously based on a wholesale misunderstanding of Iraqi society (clearly no one had read Ali al-Wardi, for one thing). But it was nonetheless sincere, in my estimation. Iraqis I talk to refuse to believe this, saying that America — as the most powerful country in the world — must have known what would befall Iraq after Saddam was removed. So they cite some other justification for the invasion, usually protecting Israel or stealing Iraq’s oil (which is not to say that oil or our relationship with Israel played no role in the decision to invade Iraq, but in my view they were secondary).

But I think that misunderstanding comes from Americans’ expectations about what politicians mean when they speak, as opposed to Iraqis’ expectations. Al-Wardi himself contrasted Americans and Iraqis concerning the difference between talk and action. He mentions in a footnote of the book his surprise, during his years of study in Texas, at how rarely Americans talked about serving their country, but that when the time came, they would leave their lives behind and serve (again, he was writing in 1951). Iraqis, in contrast, were quick to talk about serving their nation and slow to actually do so in times of need.

This all leads to a particular confusion over current U.S. policy in the Middle East, especially in Syria. After two withdrawal announcements — first in December 2018 then in October 2019 — the U.S. still has troops in northeastern Syria. I think that is a good thing — our presence is helping prevent the resurgence of ISIS in the area. Our military says the same thing. Our president, however, says that we are there for the oil. Personally, I think he’s saving face. Most observers probably agree. He became convinced that it would be unwise to withdraw from Syria, and he has used “taking the oil” as the ostensible justification for staying. This means, however, that for the first time I can remember, I am relying on the assumption that the president does not actually mean what he’s saying. I assume we are staying there to prevent ISIS from coming back and to help our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, fend off their enemies just as they helped us fend off ours. I assume we are not engaged in more frequent and more dangerous standoffs with Russian troops in order to take oil from its rightful owners. I will sympathize, more than ever, with Iraqis if the newly appointed prime minister says he will work to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, knowing he will do nothing of the sort.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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